No one ever grows up truly believing that they will be in a position to parent their parent. Sure, we all know we’re going to become elderly one day, and we all know that we’re going to see our parents get there before we do. The thing is, no one really thinks of their parents as anything less than strong, independent and happy people. So, to see them frail, scared and full of confusion in a body that no longer allows them to move in the way that they are used to, it can be very difficult. You expect to be the child your entire life, but then a day comes where your parents need to depend on you more than you ever thought possible.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; after all, these are the people who spoon fed you, taught you to walk, gave you a way to find your purpose in life with the occasional nudge every now and then. These are the people who raised you, so there’s a sense of ‘owing’ them that care and attention at the last hurdles of their life in the same way that they cared for you at the beginning of yours. It’s an emotionally complex thing, to be the person looking after their parent, and when you’re the carer the feelings that you will have can be diverse and span from sadness to euphoria and back again.
It can also be incredibly frustrating, especially if you are caring for a loved one with dementia. You have to balance your career, your life and your own family with caring for a parent, and it’s not something that was in your plan. However, this is the hand you’ve been dealt and you need to consider how you keep your own emotional wellbeing a priority while still looking after your parent to the best of your ability. Here are some of the things that could be helpful when you are in a position of caring for a parent:
Move toward acceptance that things have changed as soon as you are able. Your parent is now depending on you when for your whole life, you’ve depended on them. This has caused a massive shift where your old roles, methodologies and emotions may no longer apply. A whole new chapter to the story has been written and you have to play it out.
Go as slowly as possible. You are taking care of someone, which is a marathon and not a sprint. It’s not something that you can rush and you are all in a space in life you didn't anticipate. How you handle it will come in time, but you have to allow it all to unfold the way that it’s going to and you can’t force things to move faster. Taking care of your parent is going to break your heart, especially in cases of dementia. You need to go at their pace - it’s scary for them, too.
Emotionally checking out is going to happen for your parents. Not only are you going to hear things from them about their personal lives and their past, you’re going to be in a position that they may not know who you are. Either side is going to be hard to hear, but you have to be steady and patient, listening to the words they’re telling you. Some of it may come in words of love, telling you that they love you and want the world for you. The rest could come in words that are painful to hear, because they don’t remember you and they don’t recognise you. Always have zero expectations when it comes to their emotions; you’ll thank yourself later.
Expect your parent to lash out. Dementia is a confusing thing for you to cope with, so imagine how hard it must be for them. When you step into the shoes of their carer, you’re going to be essentially taking the one thing that they crave away from them: independence. They also won’t have authority over you anymore, and that’s not an easy thing to lose, either. Lashing out at you just means that they are lashing out about their loss, and you have to absorb it. Remind yourself that this is a process.
The one thing that you should always do when you’re in a position of a carer, is to give options and not orders. They need to feel as if they are in control and running their lives, even if they’re not technically in charge anymore. They need to make the decisions about their situation as much as possible, and you can guide those decisions without making them feel like they’re losing control.
Ask your parent for advice if you want to show them the same level of respect and love you’ve always had. This confirms to them that their opinion is still valid and their reply is still going to be valuable for you.
Love the care staff. When you are in a position of being a carer, you could choose to move your parent from their own house into a specialist home that can cope with their degeneration. It doesn't matter who looks after your parent and in which capacity, you need to show everyone your appreciation. You are all working closely together and these are the people that are going to be stepping into your shoes when you have to keep going with your own life or you need a break. It’s worth learning the names of everyone who cares for your parent, too. It’s polite.
Being a carer to your parent isn’t the norm; it’s not what you would ever have expected to deal with. However, this is where you are and all you can do is your very best. Remember, your parent is still a person who has had a life and has memories. You're also still a person who needs support, so take it where you can get it and roll with what’s to come. It’s the best way forward.